Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill review - June 2017

"One of the best shows in London"

Sometimes the hype is entirely justified. Six-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald has the incredible record of winning in all possible categories whether lead or supporting, play or musical, the only actor to ever do so, and so it is a little appropriate that her long-awaited UK stage debut comes in the form of a play where she gets to do a whole lotta singing.

Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill introduces us to Billie Holiday in the latter stages of her career, just months before her untimely death in fact. Wracked by drug and alcohol abuse, ill health and at the mercy of the many who exploited her for their own gain, she’s hoping that this cabaret show in a Philadelphia bar might just be the one to turn around her fortunes.

What’s clear from the very start though is that this is Holiday's steep, severe decline and McDonald spares us nothing of the ungainly and uncomfortable nature of being a witness to this. The mind can’t help but be drawn to thoughts of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, the morbid way in which the music industry refuses to unhook its hold until the bitter end, calling into question our own complicity as audience members too.

McDonald is unafraid to show Holiday as the quick-witted and quicksilver talent that she was even as she drinks steadily through the night, deteriorating in front of our eyes and every so often throwing pure musical gems out there. ‘God Bless The Child’, ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’, these songs are the stuff of legend and in McDonald’s perfectly modulated vocal performance here, the stuff of wonder.

Christopher Oram’s speakeasy design converts the front stalls and the stage into cabaret styles and it’s a perfect transformation. Find yourself in the right place and you might hold her drink for a while, or even light a cigarette for Lady Day, and this intimacy makes this a frequently magical performance. None more so than in the juxtaposition of the wrenching ‘Strange Fruit’ and its accompanying tale of vicious racism presented so straight-forwardly that it is like a dagger in the heart.

McDonald is supported wonderfully by Sheldon Becton as her MD Jimmy Powers on the piano, Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass. And it is a mark of Lonny Price’s production that it is as intense when the music is playing as when it stops. One of the best shows in London right now.

Reviewed by Ian Foster.
22 June 2017, Wyndham's Theatre